Thursday, October 23, 2008

Escaping to Paradise!

We're taking a well deserved break after 5 intensive weeks of Spanish school. For the next 2 weeks, we'll be traveling around Guatemala & Honduras. We plan to visit Lago Atitlan, Copan, Rio Dulce, Livingston, the Bay Islands and Coban if we have time. If we find some time and internet along our travels, we'll keep you posted. If not, you'll have to wait! Sorry! Hasta Lluego!

The Land of Milk & Honey

It’s the strangest thing, but we have discovered a “bake shop” (not a panaderia or pasteleria) here in Xela where everything is made and sold by old order Mennonites! It’s like stepping back in time for Ben, to his days of growing up eating chocolate-chip pumpkin muffins and long-john donuts in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania (a place he refers to as The Land of Milk & Honey). Although it is only open on Tuesdays and Fridays, we have been hitting it up as often as possible. Lucky for us, it’s only a few blocks from ICA and we can make it there and back during our 30-minute break. Just the re-charge that we need to finish out the day!

There are so many yummy treats we don’t even know where to start – jelly and pudding filled donuts, banana, apple, and carrot bread, granola, whole-wheat bread, chicken flavored croissants, whoopie-pies, and Ben’s old friend the Long John (know as juanitos-little johns- at our bake shop) to name a few! You see, when he was a little boy his treat for good behavior on shopping trips with mom was a long-john donut at the end of the day. How sweet is that?

If you’re not sure what a Long John is – you’re missing out. We suggest you hop on the nearest Greyhound to Lancaster County and try one out for yourself, or come on down to Xela – but make sure it’s on a Tuesday or Friday! For us, the Bake Shop is our slice of heaven, a refuge from beans and rice! Gracias a Dios!

snacking on a juanito at Laguna Chicabal

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Chicken Bus of the Week #5

There is something to be said about traveling by chicken bus. Always entertaining, you´ll never have a dull moment aboard. My 3 most memorable moments on chicken buses include:

1. A man try to sell foot cream to remove warts (complete with nasty photos) to the entire bus. He put his special cream in everyone´s lap, but when he came to me I told him that I don´t have warts and didn´t need it!

2. Returning from Laguna Chicabal via chicken bus in the rain and literally hanging out the back of the moving bus becuase it was that full (not a good experience)

3. Chatting with a young girl and her mom in Spanish during our return trip from Xocomil waterpark. After much conversation she wanted my phone number. I tried all my tricks in Spanish to avoid giving it to her, but in the end her language skills trumped mine. Now I have to field calls from a Guatemalan child!

There have probably been funnier experiences but right now I´m tired....recovering from a long weekend of travel....not in chicken bus!

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

We felt the Earth move!

Seriously. We felt the Earth move. I can´t even believe we keep forgetting to blog about it, but last week we experienced our first temlor (mini earthquake) here in Xela! Apparently temblors occur frequently here because Xela is directly above a fault line, but nonetheless the word on the street is that this one was fairly big 6.5 on the Richter scale.

We had just finished classes for the day and headed down to this bake shop-like place for some lunch, Bab´s Home. I say bake shop-like because it is in a sala (living room) setting and an American woman from Michigan (we´re assuming she is Babs) sells breads, pasteries, and a soup of the day. Anywho, we had just set our things down and served ourselves some potato soup when it started. At first it felt like there might have been a big truck driving by, but when it continued we realized what was happening. We had been doing a good job of speaking Spanish with Babs and another American girl (we happen to know from our trip to Nueva Alianza) when all of a sudden Bab´s was frantically telling us (in English) to get in the doorways.

It wasn´t what I thought it would be. Things weren´t falling off the wall and tables, but we really could feel the ground moving and see the buildings swaying. There were two parts with a lull in between, but even then there continued to be a tremble. Afterwards people came into Bab´s and they had not even realized it happened. Often times if you are walking or in a car, you don´t feel it.

Later that night when we chatted about our experience with the family, they laughed when we called it a terremoto (earthquake). Silly us, it was just a temblor. When we asked what the difference was between a terremoto and a temblor we were told a terremoto is when buildings come crashing down and people die. Simple, right. We certainly won´t make that mistake again. The last big terremoto in Guatemala was on February 4,1976.
(The following information is courtesy of Wikipedia)

The 1976 Guatemala earthquake struck on February 4, 1976. It was a 7.5 Mw earthquake, centered in the Motagua Fault, about 160 km northeast of Guatemala City.

Cities throughout the country suffered damage, and most adobe type houses in the outlying areas of Guatemala City were completely destroyed. The earthquake struck during the early morning (at 3.01 am, local time) when most people were asleep. This accounts for the high death toll of 23,000. Approximately 76,000 were injured, and many thousands left homeless. Some of areas went without electricity and communication for days.

The main shock was followed by thousands of aftershocks, some of the larger ones causing additional loss of life and damage.

Xela speaks Cherry Creek

My beloved Cherry Creek Mall has this annoying slogan “Do you speak Cherry Creek?” meaning are you up with all the designer names. I hate it. It’s so elitist, but hey that’s what Cherry Creek is known for, right? Anywho, I’m not going to pretend I don’t love fashion. I’m a slave – I even work part-time retail to reap the benefits of the 40% discount. So I won’t lie, I had been dying to check out the scene at La Pradera, an American style shopping mall in Xela. And as luck would have it, we ended up seeking refuge there one rainy day last week.

Mostly comprised of leather-upper shoes, Forever 21-like clothing, and a Hiper Piaz (an affiliate of Wal-mart), there are a few decent shops for the wealthier people of Xela as well (United Colors of Benetton, Aldo Negro, Converse, Puma, Champs). I was shocked however to run into this:
Could it really be? After all my whining about being cold, could I really step into my old standby, the Gap, and purchase a sweater that I might actually wear again when I get back to the US? It looked too good to be true…………and of course it was!

Filled with a bunch of cheap jeans and mid-drift baring polyester tops, I was completely disappointed. The window display had lied to me! Totally ticked, I pulled out my camera to document this tragedy. No sooner than I had pushed the shutter, I was approached by a mall security guard who scolded me for taking a photo. Apparently it is against mall policy to take photos inside La Pradera. Seriously? What kind of stupid rule is that? (Probably because the don’t want the Gap getting wind of this). Already in a mood, I debated with her a bit using my limited Spanish and walked away defeated – but not without my photo safely stored in the memory of my camera!

Monday, October 20, 2008

Baile, baile, baile!

As part of our "immersion" in the Latino culture, we are slowly but surely learning how to Salsa and Merengue! ICA has a clase de baile (dance class) once a week and it really is a lot of fun!

For those of you who don't know much about the different styles of Latin dance, here's a brief synopsis. Merengue is a dance with dos pasos (2 steps). It is the more basic of the two dances, but when you are doing it correctly you'll know because you're hips will be aching! Salsa, a bit more complicated is comprised of tres pasos (3 steps). You've got to constantly be thinking 123, 123, etc. With both of these dances, the guy does all the leading, so he's really got to know his stuff! And even though I have dance background and rhythm in my head, it still isn't easy!

This is a photo from our first clase de baile at ICA, courtesy of our friend Mike Gillman.

Chicken Bus of the Week #3

A little out of the ordinary, but I love this rad color combination of brown and orange.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

When pigs fly....

Ever hear that saying “…when pigs fly…”? Well the pigs in Guatemala must get around using wings because they sure aren’t using their feet. Look what we spotted in Mercado Democracia today!


Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Luna Llena

Few experiences compare with a hike under a big full moon. So of course I had to go when it involved climbing a 3,772 meter peak (12, 375 feet). We talked with the school about organizing a trip, since several students were interested. The plan was to start hiking around midnight on the full moon, sleep at the top of the mountain for an hour or so, and watch the sun rise in the morning.

We planned it for a Monday night, but true to form during rainy season it rained hard all evening before we were to leave. Our guide Miguel (or perro as we call him) decided to postpone to the next night. What started as a rainy Tuesday turned into a clear night (see pic above from top with cross in foreground). We took a pickup ride to the start of the hike - a Town called Llanos de Pinal. We started hiking in full moonlight around 12:30 am, climbing through meadows and cornfields above the Town.

We stopped to rest along the way, taking in views like the one above (Xela at night in the distance). The trail was more of a scramble at times, especially when it got steep and muddy. But we summited in 3.5 hours, basking in the views and freezing our asses (R rated version) off. The problem wasn´t the cold as much the wind and damp air. So we bunkered down behind some rocks and I ended up sleeping (kindof) under a blanket shared between a buddy and Perro. To stay warm we drank some tea, which is another story in itself. We had to buy a thermos before we left for the trip, and Krista and I spent the better part of an afternoon walking the local market trying to find a metal one. After finding one, then it was finding the tea that our host mother recommended (cherripeco) - but it was so worth it at the top. The sunrise somewhat muted by the cloud cover in the morning, but we could see volcanoes in the distance near Lago Atitlan and Antigua (150 km!).

We also got to watch eruptions from a volcano named Santiagueto, which was below the peak we were on. Visibility wasn´t great, but we saw ash rising in spurts and could see lava smoke along the edges of the crater rim. Here´s me in the foreground with socks on my hands (gloves are still in Denver) and ash plume in background.

We also amused ourselves between eruptions by watching some Dutch girls dance merengue while sharing Ipod headphones...I guess they were cold and bored. After an hour, we started the descent and made it out in 2 hours. Exhausted we made it to the bus stop for a chicken bus in Lllanos del Pinal. I slept for a couple hours when back in Xela before my Spanish class that afternoon - more tea consumed just to stay awake while learning the use of participios. Here´s a pic of the crew at the top: (L-R) Bryan (US), Perro (Guate), Rogier (Netherlands), Matthias (Germany), and Ben. Good times!

Death by Laguna Chicabal

ICA took a group trip to Laguna Chicabal this weekend. We didn't go with them, but we did go solo Sunday afternoon. Rebels, we know.

The lagoon is about a 40 minute ride outside of Xela, but took us a little longer as it seems that we hit San Martin right in the heart of market day. Before getting on the bus we told the driver we needed to get off at the entrance to the town that would take us to the lake, so the bus made a special stopjust for us. It must have been entertaining to watch the 2 grigos squeeze (because there is barely an aisle, there are so many people shoved in - a whole other blog!) out of the chicken bus on the side of a highway.

The weather had been nice when we started, but started to look a little foggy, like a storm was rolling in. Oh well, we carried on. So we had heard the hike was uphill, but what we experienced was seriously riduculous. The whole thing was uphill. And not a winding uphill walk like we are used to with the mountain trails in Colorado. Straight up. We are seasoned hikers and it did a number on us! When reached the entrance to the lake - a good 5 km. into, it was obvious it was going to storm. We paid the entrance fee at the ¨museusm¨ entrance and continued on......only another 2km. or so uphill. The remainder of the hike weaved in and out of the trees and there was a place to stop and listen to sound of the birds. By the time we arrived at the lake, the rain had officially began.

Laguna Chicabal is set in the cone of the Chicabal volcano. The lake is known for the Mayan religious rituals that occur there quite often, especially during the month of May when there are ceremonies that mark the fiesta of the Holy Cross. It is thought to be a sacred place and entering into the water is forbidden. Mayans believe anything that enters the water does not leave. There weren´t any ceremonies happening while we were there but we did see the remants of what must have been something earlier in the week - a cross at the water´s edge.

We stayed for 20 minutes or so and then started back out - that´s when the fun began. The light drizzle turned into a complete downpour. In the middle of nowhere with no place to take cover, we trudged on - mind you we are 2 hours away from the main road. By the time we made it out we were soaked to the bone - our pants completely drenched and barely staying on us! We had to walk through rivers that had begun to flood the road. It was disgusting! We were both wearing our trusty Chacos - but for me it didn´t turn out so well. Just as my bites have cleared up, I now have sores from my Chaco straps. My feet just can´t win here!
Absolustely freezing by this point, we made it back to the main road and didn´t have to wait long for our ride, the Xelaju chicken bus, to pass by and pick us up. Por su puesto (of course) everyone and their brother (and sister, father, mother, daughter, son, grandson, aunt, uncle, neighbor, etc....) was also trying to escape the rain. The bus was so full that we had to get in the back (yea, the door you had to jump out of in elementary school for the bus evacuation drill). The guy grabbed our backpack (with our $1500 camera inside) and tossed it in the bus, barely inside the door. So here we are, literally hanging out the back of the bus (because at this point there is no room inside) as it starts to move. I´m freaking out - not because we might fall out, but because our camera might fall out.....and die for sure. Eventually we squeeze in and get the door closed, but it was not a good experience. With Ben pressed against the back door and me on my tip-toes holding on for dear life to the ¨Oh Shit¨ handles above (R rated version, sorry) we make it back to Xela in one piece......barely. Thankfully, so did our camera with only 1 minor problem (aside from my feet) - our lens cap got lost sometime during the events of the day. (If you´ve got an extra, we´d love to have it. We´ve been to every possible store in Xela, and they are nowhere to be found.)

Brave, courageous, die-hard hikers - you might call us that, but keep this in mind. There is a reason the school trip leaves at 6am. They can get in and get out before the rain begins!

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Playing Frogger

A jay-walker for years (who isn’t?), I have always thought, “If you’re gonna go, please don’t let it be because a crappy car hits me….at least let it be something high end!” Well here it Xela it is possible that this nasty little nightmare, may actually happen one day – but hopefully not to me! If you’ve ever tried to cross through a round-about in Rome, you’re getting close to the fear that we gringo pedestrians have everyday here in Xela. It’s not that there aren’t rules of the road, it just that no one cares about following them! Laying on your horn (or more often, beeping to the rhythm of your favorite tune) is commonplace. Forget about traffic lanes, even if there were lines on the road, no one would use them. While there are traffic lights, they’re few and far between. And turn signals….who needs ‘em? It’s simple – whoever is bigger and ballsy-er – wins.

Ironically enough it appears that the city of Xela is putting forth an effort to get traffic under control – at least on Calle Rodolfo Robles. Since we live right on this street, and walk it to school everyday, we have had the opportunity to witness the construction of a traffic circle. While it doesn’t have any signs to aid in efficiency of use, it has helped slow down the traffic and make left hand turns possible. Most drivers, especially chicken bus drivers, don’t seem to be very happy about it though. Now they aren’t honking their horns to warn someone to get out of the way, they are honking because they have to use their brakes!

An “enginerd” at heart, Ben has been fascinated by the construction of this thing, commently daily on their progress or lack there of (one morning we noticed it had gotten destroyed overnight).

Bed Bugs, Fleas, and Poison Ivy

Now that it is pretty much over and done with I’m ok blogging about it, but for a while there I was freaking out! The weekend we went to the coffee finca I contracted a bunch of bug bites, as did everyone else. A few days past and everyone else carried on, but I was still scratching away, all night and all day. Seriously I wasn’t sleeping because I was so itchy and my cortisone cream wasn’t cutting it. My teacher put a bug in my ear (no pun intended) that I might want to consider the idea of “bed bugs” OH, NO! Immediately my thoughts went to a friend of ours who had to move out of her apartment in Denver because she couldn’t get rid of bed bugs. Great, just what we need. Of course I hurried home after school to raid the bed and sure enough, a found a little black bug. Just one, but I was convinced.

Bravely that afternoon, Ben brought to our family’s attention that there might be an issue with our bed. Of course they didn’t believe it – 15 years of students and this had never before happened. Convinced that I picked up a flea on our chicken bus excursion to Totonicapan earlier in the week, they revealed that they found one in the house after we returned from the trip. Maybe it was from all the street dogs or the way we were packed into the bus like sardines? Who would ever know! Nevertheless when we returned from our weekend in Pana, our room was cleaned and the bedding was changed. But my itching persisted. We began to wonder if I had come into contact with a poisonous plant of some sort at the finca.

Finally Tuesday morning I paid a visit to the ICAmigos free clinic at our school. The doctor wasn’t sure of the cause, but advised me to purchase Calafar cream (the same as calamine lotion I think) at the local pharmacy. For the remainder of the week I alternated the calfar and cortisone and I am happy to say, that today is my first official day without itching in 2 weeks!!!! Gracias Dios!

While I was miserable for quite some time, this whole experience has taught me a lesson. Just because you might be the “clean girl”, you’re not above catching a flea! Now I walk the streets with the gift of fear – fear of every dog, every crowd, and every little itch I have! Is that paranoia or what? And here’s the kicker. I have earned my sobre nombre (nickname) at school – Pulgita (little flea). Endearing, huh?

Gross photo, I know, but it got even worse than it looks!

Now showing.....

Today we feel a bit like we have stepped back in time to our high school days..................and we can´t find our way out!

Monday, October 13, 2008

a whole lot of hot air

Over the weekend we stayed and played in Xela. Saturday was a gorgeous day with lots of sun and absolutely no rain! For awhile now we have been curious about the hillside right above Parque Central. There is a church on top of the hill with a Hollywood style sign above it that reads “Cristo Viene” (Christ is coming). We had heard about vapor caves and a restaurant up there as well, so after lunch we took off on our first real adventure without a guide – just a few directions from Gato, Ben’s teacher, and a brief description in Lonely Planet. It wasn’t quite as easy as we expected (the hike was ridiculously steep), but definitely a great escape from the noise and exhaust of the city.

Along the way we stopped a few times to take in the view and ask the friendly locals for directions. We encountered a few obstacles too. First there was the house with a pack of dogs - the guy here said it was 30 more minutes. After a wrong turn, we were redirected by a family harvesting onions. Back on track, but now there was an empty truck blocking the path……and after the truck, there was a cow blocking the path. Next there was house with a swarm of bees – this guy said 30 minutes too! A little further down the road we ran into some water delivery guys who offered us a drink of soda – they said 20 more minutes...or we could ride back to town with them! We carried on. Then we took a break near a plot a land where cabbage was growing so our friend Roger could catch up with us. Past some giant eucalyptus trees, and we finally arrived at Los Vahos!

Build around natural steam vents, Los Vahos is a steam room, heated by the activity of a volcano. It isn’t very fancy, just 2 little rooms, some eucalyptus leaves, plastic stools, and a lot of steam. We stayed in for about 10 minutes before taking a break and then went back in for another 10 minutes or so. Even though we weren’t in there long, it sure cleared out all the crap from our systems! The hike back out was much more refreshing than on the way there. There were some sights back down the hill as well – dogs digging in trash, kids throwing a deflated football, a group of guys playing soccer, and some kids who wanted there pictures taken (and then begged for Q1).

Before heading back into the city we swung by Panorama, a Swiss restaurant with lots of good cheese and fondue, to watch the sunset and have a snack. The perfect end to a beautiful day.

Chicken Bus of the Week #2

       This one is the Mack Daddy of all Chicken Buses!

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Shower at your own risk!

So, one thing that has been an adjustment for us has been hot showers (in some cases, the lack of).  We have taken some cold showers (read no hot water) and others with tepid water.  We've learned to appreciate a warm shower and good water pressure, when we do have one.  The typical shower in Guatemala looks like the one at our homestay below.

Most Guatemalas have a calientador to make hot water in the shower, similar to the one pictured below.  Yes, that is electrical tape on 220V 1 phase electrical service to a hot water heater that you stand under - that's why they are nicknamed "widow makers".

Actually, they are not that bad when they work.  In our house, the calientador stopped working the second week.  Our family had to have it fixed by a handyman from another Town outside Xela, so this took a couple days to fix.  In the meantime, Ben played a soccer game and the host family, being mothers, heated up hot water for him to hand bathe in.  Krista was jealous.

Anyway, hot water (and electricity) is a luxury usually found only in urban and semi-urban areas of Guatemala.  This places many rural areas without what we consider basic needs.  The engineers at AIDG (or enginerds according to Krista) are working on a solar hot water heater for rural areas.  The system heats water in small diameter pipelines on the rooftop of a house during the day, which then can be used at night for showering, etc.  More to come on AIDG in future blogs...

McDia Feliz

Yesterday, October 6th, was McDia Feliz here in Guatemala. I´m sure the US has this same ¨holiday,¨ but since we had never celebrated it before we just had to participate. All proceeds from Big Mac sales at Micky D´s got toward the Ronald McDonald house. Here in Guatemala, la casa de Ronald McDonald is in Guatemala City. Who doesn´t want to support a good cause? Plus it was a buen excusio (good excuse) to eat some familar food! We hit the McDonald´s near the centro in Xela around 1pm, and it was bumpin! We may have even been on the local news, but since we haven´t really watched television since we arrived in Xela, who knows! Thanks for lunch Ronnie!

Sorry the photo won´t import larger!

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Chichi or Bust

We finally made it to the infamous market in Chichicastenango on Sunday on our way home to Xela from Pana.  It's everything they say it is....and more.  Our fearless guia (guide) Miguel "El Perro" made sure we saw the 2 other attractions Chichi has to offer before letting us loose in the market.  

There's an expensive hotel ($110 USD) directly across the street from the outskirts of the market. It was nice but, the most interesting part was the man who was playing a marimba made out of gourds in the courtyard.  We stood and watched him for a while among all the other tourists with cameras permanently attached to their eyes.  For a funny photo of all the tourists check out our amigo Mike's Flickr page.

After we had soaked up enough of the music, we headed into the heart of it, first stopping by the main church that the market is centered around.  Another good meeting place for a group of gringos!

We spent an hour of so browsing the mercado, stopping to talk with any of the vendors who weren't shouting out "good price for you!" at us.  A hand sewn Mayan calendar caught my eye and I started in on the bartering game.  You know how they say if you walk away, you'll get the price you want?  Well it's true.  We had this poor lady following us halfway through the market and we continued to play hardball, walking away once again.  After looking all over and not seeing another just like it, I hung my head in shame and went back for more.  In the end we both walked away happy,  me with my calendar and her with Q210.  Maybe I could have gotten a lower price with better Spanish skills, but knowing that it took her 1 month to complete, I didn't really have the heart to go lower!  Actually, speaking with her was probably the best part of the day.